Dinaw Mengestu: “The Paper Revolution” from TNY, 1/13/14

When Isaac and I first met, at the University, we both pretended that the campus and the streets of the capital were as familiar to us as the dirt paths of the rural villages where we had grown up and lived only a few months earlier. The capital in those days was booming with people, money, new cars, and even newer buildings, most of which had been thrown up quickly after independence, in a rush fueled by the ecstatic promises of a Socialist, Pan-African future that, almost ten years later, was still supposedly just around the corner.

This piece functions nicely as the opening to a novel (which it is; All Our Names is due out in March): it introduces us to the (presumably) central character, and gives us a good sense of where he came from and what motivations he might carry forward. As a short story, I didn’t think it worked at all, since it’s… not a short story. Far more is promised, but the end is more of a turning point than an ending. That’s the point with excerpts, after all; it’s not fair to hold them to the standards of short stories. Yet I wonder how many people read this, and think, “See, this is why I hate short stories; what happened?”

The setting is an unnamed African capital; the implication is that it’s Kampala, Uganda, but Mengestu makes it clear in his Page Turner interview that he’s set it generally in the optimistic time in Africa between colonialism and dictatorship, but not in a particular year (“the 70s” is a range) or place. Our first-person narrator never gives his name; he “gave up all the names” on the trip from village to capital. His friend Isaac calls him Professor; he later adopts the name Langston. These names are both rooted in his motivation to be at the capital, and at the University – not as a student, of course, that would be beyond his means; just there:

Though we couldn’t afford to take classes, we all wanted to be revolutionaries. On campus, and even in the poor quarters where Isaac and I lived, there were dozens of Lumumbas, Marleys, Malcolms, Cesaires, Kenyattas, Senghors, and Selassies, boys who woke up every morning and donned the black hats and olive green costumes of their heroes.… I tried to think of myself as a revolutionary in the making, even though I had come to the capital with other ambitions. A decade or so earlier, there had been an important gathering of African writers and scholars at the University. I had read about it in a week old newspaper that had finally made its way to my village. That conference gave shape to my adolescent ambitions, which until then had consisted solely of leaving.

The title of the piece refers to paper signs anonymously posted around the university. When the Administration, in responses to some revolutionary graffiti, advises: “It Is a Crime against the Country to Deface Our University Walls,” Isaac’s signs read “It Is a Crime against the Country to Ask What Is a Crime against the Country” and, his pièce de résistance, “It Is a Crime against the Country to Read This.” Other students begin to regard Isaac as a kind of leader; a following develops. And you know what happens when the police arrive, right?

There’s an interesting element to that as well. The original graffiti was popularly attributed to an “invisible” revolutionary who may have existed only in campus mythology (my money’s on Isaac, though the original invisible revolutionary may have only served as the inspiration for Isaac’s turn as paper revolutionary). After the police crackdown, Isaac is invisible as well:

I didn’t have the heart or the courage to imagine him in prison, much less dead; I thought of it simply as lost, one of the millions across the world who vanished one day and can still rise again.
…I was no longer just a spectator. Isaac had ensured that. I could see him yet, but I was certain he was at the center of that crowd, ready for battle, waiting for me to join him.

The excerpt ends there, so we don’t know how this affects Langston’s future (unless of course you read the pre-release reviews), but we can assume that Isaac invisible is still a strong presence for him.

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